Are you in the email elite?

Are you in the email elite?

by Mikita Weaver, Intern, CEDR

Signalling Status and Position: How Online Communication is Transforming Negotiations

In face-to-face negotiations, powerful players have many ways to exert dominance. Powerful individuals dress in smart clothes that signal wealth and use props – such as BlackBerrys, personal phones, laptops, i-pads, etc. – to show their “technical savvy, busyness, and high valuation by the organization” [David Owens, Margaret Neale, & Robert Sutton, Technologies of Status Negotiation: Status Dynamics in Email Discussion Groups (2000)].

Powerful players attract attention by sitting at the focal point of a room, show dominance by interrupting other individuals, and gain control of the group’s conversation through body language and gestures. In face-to-face negotiations, the more powerful party has a stack full of cards that can be played in order to exert power and show dominance; however, in online negotiations many of these cards disappear.

Of course, there are many disadvantages to faceless communication. Without non-verbal cues from a “human” across the negotiation table, it is much more difficult to develop interpersonal connections and build trust. Without the non-verbal cues it is much more difficult to detect deception and bluffing; hence, an individual may feel less guilty and about exploiting or hurting a “faceless” individual. Id. An individual is more likely to exploit or fear exploitation by the other party in the absence of a relationship of trust with some accountability.

During negotiations, the use of online communication can in many ways level the playing field. In e-negotiations, both parties can come as almost equals to the “virtual negotiation table.”

  1. No first impressions. First impressions are usually based on appearance and physical-likeness. Employers admit that the weight and physical attraction of an interview applicant is a factor in whether or not an individual receives the job offer. In the negotiation setting, this often means that we are more likely to have positive first impressions of another party if they dress like us, look like us, and talk like us. As a result, parties are often at a disadvantage when negotiating with individuals from different ethnicities, cultures, or countries. In faceless e-negotiations, parties do not have the luxury of judging the other party based on body language and physical appearance; instead, parties must create new ways to learn about each other. Consequently, in order to humanize the other party, parties often disclose information and exchange stories to learn about each other. Humour can also be used to help create a face in the otherwise face-less e-negotiation.
  2. No interruptions. In e-negotiations, parties can no longer signal dominance by interrupting conversations. Given the asynchronous nature of emails, parties communicate absent a defined timeline. Traditionally, a high-status individual could show up late to a meeting or skip a session due to a last-minute appointment. Given the nature of online communication, high-status individuals are now more available and able to participate given that they can check their BlackBerry anywhere. However, in online communications, distinctions between high and low status individuals do exist. Individuals with higher or medium status send more emails of a substantive and social nature while low status individuals send more emails of an administrative nature.
  3. No (or less) formalities. In using emails, parties are more likely to use informal language which generally is associated with status equality or downwardly-directed communication. Regardless of status, individuals often drop the formal salutations and closings and include grammatical errors such as exclusive use of lowercase letters. Parties can still signal status in emails—sometimes without even realizing it. Long-winded signature files that include an individual’s title/degree(s), occupation(s), place(s) of work, and place(s) of residence are very telling of any individual’s position and status. As an indication of an individual’s education and ability, the writing contained in an email may also serve as a way to distinguish individuals of different status. The Owens, Neale & Sutton study tracked two research teams within different research and development organizations where the predominant method of communication between low, medium, and high status individuals was computer-mediated software. Because this study focused on communication between individuals of different status, it can be broadly applied to various setting such as at the negotiation table.

The power is in your hands—or in the keyboard. Negotiating online can level the playing field in terms of limiting the ways in which a party can exert dominance and show his or her status. However, there are still ways an e-negotiator can signal their high status if that is part of the negotiation approach. Perhaps as a negotiation tactic, you want to assert power and show your high status to get the biggest piece of the pie so you craftily use formal emails, skilled writing, and pretentious large signature files to show just how powerful and valuable you are. If however creating a relationship is more important to the long-lasting nature of a particular deal, an e-negotiator may choose to curtail their use of status revealing signals. Regardless of whether a party wants to use status as a tactic in online negotiations, e-negotiators should be aware of how their actions inadvertently or intentionally send messages to the other party signalling status.

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2 Responses to Are you in the email elite?

  1. Clive Rich 23/01/2011 at 01:42 #

    As a professional negotiator and CEDR-qualified mediator, I generally find it’s much easier to negotiate face-to-face. As you say the cues as to what people need and feel are much more apparent in their face, body and language. This is lost in email negotiation. I also find that people tend to adopt and maintain tougher positions for longer online. Its easier to hang tough when you are protected by your screen and keyboard than when you are having to justify positions face to face.

  2. Mikita 31/01/2011 at 21:59 #

    That is a fabulous point. I wrote this article from a purely negotiations perspective. As a negotiator, sometimes to get the best deal, you want to hide behind the screen and keyboard in order to “hang tough” as you say, to get as much from the other party as possible. But, as a mediator, it is essential to have the parties talk to one another face-to-face and get them to justify their positions to each other. In the process, perhaps the parties can establish rapport and ultimately be more satisfied with the settlement reached.

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